BOOK EXCERPT

‘Poonachi’ is Perumal Murugan’s first novel after he was attacked for ‘One Part Woman’

An excerpt from the new novel which was at the centre of an intense bidding war among publishers.

The kid slept right below the old woman’s cot. The old woman got up every now and then, lifted the basket, and looked at the kid. Curled up on the gunny bag mattress, the little thing lay fast asleep.
 A couple of hours after midnight, when the woman opened the basket to check, the kid struggled to her feet and cried out. Contracting her body a bit, she peed. “Poonachi, how will you sleep if your bed is damp?” the old woman asked as she hurriedly pulled the kid out. But once she 
was out, Poonachi circled the old woman’s legs, bleating plaintively; sucking on an ankle, she tried to feed as well.

“Is your stomach troubling you, Poonachi?” the old woman asked and picked up the kid. She went to the hut where
the goats were tied up for the night. The nanny goat which had recently delivered her litter was lying on the ground, chewing the cud. The old woman roused her. Thinking that she was about to get something to eat, the goat stood up eagerly and tugged at the woman’s waist.

As if they had been waiting for that moment, three kids came running and attacked her udder. Two kids grabbed hold of a teat each. The third tried hard to push the others aside with its snout and grab a teat. Their bodies trembled as they suckled fiercely. Holding Poonachi in her hand, the old woman didn’t know what to do. She thought of waking the old man. He had fallen into deep slumber just moments earlier. Otherwise, given the din the kids were making, he would have got up by now and yelled at them.

Forcefully pushing aside the kid who sat beside the 
nanny goat with the teat on the near side in its mouth, she brought Poonachi’s mouth closer.

Poonachi’s nostrils must have sensed the odour of milk. Immediately, she tried to catch the teat in her mouth. Because the goat’s own kids had suckled on it, the teat had become swollen and was 
too big for Poonachi’s mouth. So she caught a tip between her lips and tugged at it. The milk tasted even better than when she had been suckled earlier that day, and Poonachi went at it avidly. 
She didn’t have the energy to butt the udder. The old woman didn’t release her hold either.

Had Poonachi stood on the ground, the udder would have been beyond her reach. Just when she had wet her belly to some extent,
 the realisation that an infant’s tender mouth was pressed around her teat dawned on the goat. Kicking her legs, she positioned herself at an oblique angle. Even then, her kids pushed their heads at her udder and continued to suckle. “Oh, you caught on to her quickly, eh?” the old woman 
said as she patted the goat on her head. Then, holding a hind leg of the goat with one hand, she let Poonachi, whom she was holding in her other hand, suckle the goat. The nanny goat knew the feeding style of her kids. She tried to protect her udder from the intruder by jumping and sliding around.

Every now and then, when his body became overheated, the old man would ask for goat’s milk. His wife would tie up the kids and squeeze a tumbler of milk from the goat’s udder early in the morning before letting them out to feed. The old man would receive the tumbler of raw milk in his hand and pour it into his mouth. On some days, he would ask her to boil it. She would drop a bit of palm jaggery in the boiled milk and give it to him. The milk and the eats made from it didn’t agree with the old woman. She drank it rarely, and reluctantly.

For the nanny goat, it was a new experience to suckle 
a kid other than her own.

She had to fight to protect her udder. In the ensuing mêlée, Poonachi’s belly was half-filled. Stroking the tiny stomach, the old woman said, “Right. You’ve had enough for now. Go to sleep. We’ll take care
 of it in the morning,” and put her back under the basket. Now that Poonachi had got a taste of milk, she couldn’t control her craving. Instead of lying down under the cover of the basket, she butted it again and again, and tried to suckle, until she became exhausted and lay down to sleep. The same thing happened over the next few days. Sometimes the old man came along to assist his wife. With one of them holding the goat’s neck in a firm grip and the other holding its legs together, they would get Poonachi
to suckle.

The goat didn’t at all wish to suckle this kid.
 She would try to break free and run. But the old woman wouldn’t give up. The moment she woke the goat to suckle Poonachi, all her three kids would come running. Pushing them away was hard. When all three of them butted the goat’s udder, inserting Poonachi in the middle was difficult too. She couldn’t put them inside a basket either. If she tried to get Poonachi to suckle while the kids were away nibbling grass in the pasture, the goat would raise her voice and call out to her kids. Wherever they might be, the kids would come leaping and running as soon as they heard
their mother’s call.
 Somehow, on most days, Poonachi got enough milk to
 fill half, or at least a quarter, of her stomach. At this rate, how would she ever recover and grow up healthy?

If only she could manage for a month, she could start eating grass and leaves. The old woman worried about it all the time. For his part, the old man would tell her, “She comes from 
a line that can deliver a litter of seven. Some fellow turned up from nowhere like god and gifted her to me. Don’t treat her like an orphan.” Whenever she was unable to get the goat to suckle Poonachi, she would fling random abuse at him: “The old wretch has brought this kitten home only to take the life out of me.”

Excerpted with permission from Poonachi: The Story Of A Black Goat, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Raman, Context.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.